Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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How to Talk to China

by Elliott Abrams
September 19, 2012


The policy of the Obama administration toward China has been a failure. Secretary Clinton’s recent trip was a reminder of this, because it was filled with friction and achieved very little. Here is an account from the Los Angeles Times:

In a short, frustrating visit to Beijing, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was stood up Wednesday by the future leader of China and delivered a stern lecture on China’s rights in the South China Sea…..During the third stop in her nearly two-week sweep of Asia, Clinton had hoped to meet with Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to get the nod next month to succeed Hu Jintao as China’s president. Xi also canceled meetings Wednesday with the Singapore prime minister and Russian officials, claiming a back injury. Nonetheless, the no-show at the session with Clinton was widely interpreted as a snub.

In advance of the visit, Chinese state media lashed out at Clinton, ridiculing what it said were her efforts to maintain American “hegemony” in the Pacific. Beijing particularly resents U.S. efforts to mediate China’s competing claims with neighbors — Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, in particular — to barren islets and reefs around its waters.

On Wednesday, Clinton reiterated a proposal for a code of conduct to help countries resolve such disputes. But she was shot down by Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi during a joint news conference in the Great Hall of the People.

What is striking about this policy failure is that comes even though the administration has for four years gone out of its way to avoid criticizing China’s severe human rights violations. During Hu Jintao’s visit to the White House, human rights as a topic virtually disappeared. The Dalai Lama was famously led out of the White House through a side entrance where he had to dodge garbage bags. Of course the administration says it talks to the Chinese about human rights, but that tells us little; having something on a lengthy agenda, without any particular emphasis, would signal to the Chinese that it has little priority. When the United Nations Human Rights Council reviewed China’s human rights record earlier this year, Australia and Canada were at the front of the line in offering criticism.  The U.S. delegation was silent. As early as March 2009, Obama administration policy led the Washington Post to editorialize that “Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton continues to devalue and undermine the U.S. diplomatic tradition of human rights advocacy. On her first foreign trip, to Asia, she was dismissive about raising human rights concerns with China’s communist government, saying ‘those issues can’t interfere’ with economic, security or environmental matters.”

For all its kowtowing the administration has gained nothing from the Chinese regime except disrespect. A far better approach to China would emphasize American strength, and in fact that argument has been made recently—and in China, directly to Communist Party cadres. Sadly, it was not made by an American official.

Perhaps that should lead us to pay even more attention to the remarks, which were made by Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong to the Central Party School two weeks ago. Here are four key paragraphs from the section of the speech entitled  “CHINA-US RELATIONS.”


10.     Among China’s external relationships, none is more important than that with the US. This is the most important bilateral relationship for both parties, and for the entire world.


11.     The US will remain the dominant superpower for the foreseeable future. It is currently facing some very difficult problems, but it is not a nation in decline. The US is an enormously resilient and creative society, which attracts and absorbs talent from all over the world, including many from China and the rest of Asia. These new arrivals often integrate successfully into the US and make significant contributions to their society, academia or business. All eight Nobel Prize winners in science who are of Chinese descent either were or subsequently became American citizens. We should never under-estimate the US’ capacity to reinvigorate and reinvent itself.


19.     The US is and will remain an Asia-Pacific power. Chinese leaders have welcomed the US’ presence in the Asia-Pacific. On a visit to the US in May, National Defence Minister GEN Liang Guanglie acknowledged that the Asia-Pacific was big enough to accommodate both the US and China, even though both countries have very different national circumstances, strategic needs and interests.


20.     Singapore believes that the US’ continued presence in the region contributes to Asia’s prosperity and security. The US has legitimate long-term interests in Asia, and plays a role in Asia which no other country can. This is not just because of its military or economic strength, but for historical reasons. In the 60 years since the end of World War II, the US presence has created a peaceful environment which enabled the region to thrive. This is why many Asia-Pacific countries hope that the US continues to contribute to regional peace and stability.


We can only hope that because these comments came from an official of another government rather than an American they will have even greater impact in China. Coming from Mr. Lee, the reminder to the Chinese Communist Party that “All eight Nobel Prize winners in science who are of Chinese descent either were or subsequently became American citizens” might attract more attention, and more thinking about China’s difficulties and America’s strengths, than American policy has managed in years.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by RousseauC

    I don’t know the author’s expertise on China, but this argument is seriously flawed and ignorant. Yes. To Americans like this author, only the Americans can lecture the rest of the world whenever they want, no other nation should point finger or lecture Americans. But if you ask Aung San Suu Kyi yesterday, she would disagree.
    The Xi Jinping no show is not a snub. After all, if Xi wanted to snub Hillary, why he wants to snub Russia, Singapore and Norway officials. It does not make sense.
    Yes. China has a lot to improve on the human rights ground, but bilateral talk is going on and this is a better approach than just playing a shouting game. It takes time for China to change, if you just acknowledge there is difference among US states, such as New York and Mississippi.
    To be honest, the Obama government has been doing quite well on China. Making compromise is a sign of strength, said Bill Clinton, while mediating Middle East peace. The cowboy policy no longer belongs to the 21st century.
    If you know what is self-criticism, you should do a serious one for the US policy in the Middle East, Afghanistan… Why anti-Americanism is even higher in South Korea than in China? It doesn’t make sense, right? But for Americans who think that all the problems are not caused by Americans but other nations, you will never find a solution….
    I hope that is not what is known as American exceptionalism.

  • Posted by John Miller

    Excellent, insightful commentary. The Chinese are hard negotiators (as they should be). The Americans need to learn how to negotiate rather than throw away all their chips at the beginning.

  • Posted by Kevin Bayona

    The United States should always make efforts to promote human rights around the world, but I think the United States should take a realist appraoch to China.

    The United States should make every attempt to balance China’s power through bi-lateral partnerships with Australia, India, South Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Japan should re-militarize to some degree, and the United States should prevent China from becoming a regional hegemon.

    Simultaneously, the United States should avoid being drawn into another cold war/arms race and serve as a framer or mediator of disputes in the region. It will be a difficult balancing act.

  • Posted by matt poalillo

    im only on here for my FREAKING homework and this is no help

  • Posted by ASEAN

    China leadership is just everywhere. Everyone trying to show whos an alpha male trying to set an example especially for election time. Of course other Asean countries are worried with chinas “peaceful growth of military” China had war with russia over land dispute, same with India, same with Vietnam, now bullying korea over another island, then japan, then philippines! now who has some common sense? everyone will have one eye on chinas “peaceful growth”. China wants to be a global power and will want to show this in the future one day! China’s holding a grudge! and it will blow up in the future thats a fact and everyone who worried has the right to be!.

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